Tyler Duffey had a pretty quiet inning last month in Gwinnett County, Ga. Called upon to relieve, Duffey struck out the first two hitters he faced, got a hard ground ball that sneaked through the hole at short for a single and ended the inning on a tapper to the first baseman. “About as smooth an inning as you could ask for from a pitcher,” Duffey said. “But I gave up a run.”
Yes, Duffey was pitching the 14th inning of a Rochester 7-6 victory over the Stripers, and it was being played under the new rules being used at all levels of the minors: Each inning beyond nine begins with a runner standing on second base; in Duffey’s case, Gwinnett shortstop Sean Kazmar Jr., who made the final out of the 13th, sprinted home to score on the only hit of the inning.
“Doesn’t seem fair,” said Duffey, the Twins righthander who is currently back at Class AAA. “Doesn’t seem like baseball.”
That’s a common complaint as minor league baseball implements the experimental rules, designed to address what some consider a scourge and others view as a blessing: extra innings.
Ballparks empty and viewers tune out when games drag into the night. Baseball’s great quality is that there is no clock on the game — but that doesn’t always feel like a benefit when the Twins and Indians play 5 hours, 13 minutes to decide a 2-1 game, as they did in San Juan, Puerto Rico, last month. “I know fans get tired. It’s funny, to us on the field, the game is actually more exciting when it can end at any moment,” Duffey said. “But you can tell fans don’t always feel it. Or just don’t want to watch a game that long.”
Broadcast partners can grow antsy, too, knowing that unlike football or basketball, their audience shrinks, not expands, when a game goes longer than expected. “For us in the booth, extra innings are a lot of fun. Things get a little zany, really informal,” said Jessica Mendoza, an ESPN analyst on “Sunday Night Baseball” who was on the air for nearly five hours last Sunday because of a couple of rain delays and a 14-inning game between the Cubs and Cardinals. “But I know that the programming [department] would prefer nine-inning games.”
Even Paul Molitor, whose team played the Cardinals the next night, felt his attention wane. “I stayed with it for a while,” Molitor said. “What time did it end, anyway?”
It’s an issue that other sports have tackled in years past, some of them by altering the playing style of their games. Until 1996, college football leagues traditionally declared a tie rather than play overtime; when fan discontent grew too big to ignore, the sport implemented a sudden-death rule that turns a game of field possession into showdown of short drives.
Hockey faced a dilemma more akin to baseball, given that scoring can dry up for long stretches, and most fans grow weary, not absorbed, as extra periods drag on, at least during the regular season. The NHL added an overtime period in 1983, and changed it to a 4-on-4 matchup in 1999. When that didn’t eliminate ties, the league adopted a penalty-shot shootout to decide games, much to the horror of traditionalists, in 2005.
Major League Baseball would probably face even more withering criticism if it attempted to limit extra innings — as professional leagues in Japan and South Korea do by declaring games a tie after 12 innings — or artificially trigger more offense, as with the minor league rule. “Certainly the purists are not going to be favorable to making adjustments to create situations to score,” said Molitor, who considers himself one of those purists. Extra innings have “been a part of the game for a long time. As much as it hurts you at times, I would be opposed.”
Even Commissioner Rob Manfred, who supports examining a variety of methods to make the game more appealing to casual fans, said of the man-on-second rule, “I don’t see it as a rule we’re going to bring to Major League Baseball.”
But some players are more open-minded about considering extra-inning alterations, for a variety of minor reasons — and one big one.
“The one thing I don’t like about extra innings at this level,” said Twins reliever Zach Duke, “is that it seems like when we have a long one, someone always loses their job.”
That’s because as baseball has evolved in the analytics age, relievers are used for shorter stints and rarely more than two days at a time. When bullpens have to cover several more innings than expected, teams summon help from the minor leagues and option someone out. David Hale, for instance, was claimed off waivers by the Twins on April 26, then pitched three innings in his debut on April 27 — and, because the bullpen was overworked and needed another fresh arm, was immediately designated for assignment.
“The carry-over is just so significant” for bullpens, agreed Molitor, whose roster briefly carried 14 pitchers in the wake of a 16-inning loss at Washington in 2016, sending down Byron Buxton to do it. “It’s tough to absorb extra innings when you’re trying to keep your pen fresh.”
“That’s the toughest part of it, especially at the big leagues,” Duffey said. “When you have a long game, something has to give, rosterwise, and you can feel it.”
Twins players don’t believe the man-on-second rule is an answer, though. The rule is also used in international play and in the World Baseball Classic, and it makes sense at a minor league level, where the goal is development and overworking pitchers is counterproductive. Though as Matt Magill points out, it helps a reliever learn how to enter a game with runners on base and pressure at its highest.
“I understand what they’re trying to do because of the way games are getting. Extra innings get long and the bullpen takes the brunt of it,” righthander Lance Lynn said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but this ain’t it. Bunt, fly ball, that’s a run? You’ve got to earn runs, that’s what this game is about.”
Other players made other suggestions, some crazier than others. Designate a 26th roster spot for an emergency-use pitcher, perhaps only for extra innings, one said, though the logistics of keeping that pitcher’s arm strong may be a problem. Take one defender off the field each inning. Start each batter with a 1-1 count. Stage a home-run derby, ala hockey.
“I’m all for trying to find better ways to enhance the game, make it better, make it more appealing, more fun,” Brian Dozier said. “The players are open-minded, we really are, about making changes. Just don’t hurt the integrity of the game.”
Otherwise? “Let’s just go play slow-pitch softball, I guess,” Lynn growled.